Written by: William D. Anton, Ph. D., Founder of CEO Effectiveness
“Becoming self-aware is a necessary milestone on the path to self-knowledge but it does not have the transformational power that self-knowledge liberates within us. Our spirit compels us to go beyond unless we actively resist the call for a greater life. Unfortunately, most do not heed the call.”
One of the ways of understanding what “emotional intelligence” means is to start by listing hard wired tendencies and capabilities present at birth. We are born with the sucking reflex, the ability to mirror, the tendency to interpret ambiguity as danger, to double down on habits in the face of threat, and neuroplasticity, which is present throughout life.
The sucking reflex is the only reflex fully developed at birth. It allows us to take in food and stay alive physically. The mirror neuron system is also innate, hence the capacity to imitate others is present at birth. An infant can imitate three distinct facial expressions at 41 minutes of age.
Part of the reason we are alive today is because our ancestors had the ability for the sudden and intense press for action in the face of threat. The hard-wired tendencies to interpret ambiguity as danger while doubling down on habits in the face of threat had survival value. The amygdale (the brains sentinel) responds with a hair trigger to ambiguous threats by hijacking the right pre-frontal cortex (the negative, pessimistic part of the brain) in preparing for action by pumping cortisol into the bloodstream.
So, here is where neuroplasticity comes in. We are equipped to survive physically and adapt psychologically at birth. The ability to build the brain circuits needed for adapting to our initial introduction to the world helps us optimize our adaptation to that environment. Early experience leads to beliefs that evolve into mental models (supported by neurobiology) and habits that validate and reinforce our emerging view of ourselves and our world.
Excluding the sucking reflex, the other hard-wired tendencies help us adapt in our initial learning environment but may actually limit us from reaching our innate potential in the larger world. This is because early learning is like gravity and warps the space where newer learning takes place. Habits are like a governor that protect our early beliefs and models. That is why coaches often prefer those who have never played and have less to unlearn.
Around our mid-20s our own neurobiology offers a new opportunity to change outdated models of ourselves and our world. The pathway between the amygdale and the left pre-frontal cortex is strengthened, making it possible to inhibit and even override changes in the amygdale resulting from childhood trauma and socialization itself. This change makes developing emotional intelligence more possible and is a threshold that allows the work toward self-realization to begin in earnest. The more aware we are of ourselves the more we can enable cognitive capacity by adding value to our decisions.
It is useful at this point to distinguish between self-awareness and self-knowledge. In my view, they are both important but qualitatively different. For example, “I know I have a short fuse” is a statement that suggests we have some level of self-awareness. We can stand away from our early leaning enough to function as more objective bystanders of ourselves. Moving towards our self-knowledge (our truer selves) probes more deeply than simple description. For example, “I know that my predisposition to anger is covering something painful and it is actively keeping me from becoming my truer self.”
One of the most important lessons of self-knowledge is the realization that the quality of our relationship with ourselves is the upper limit on the relationship we can have with anyone else. It is the source of our real power. It is transformational. The person with the bad temper who is not curious about how they came to respond that way can certainly learn emotional intelligence skills. But, they will still be applying them through the prism of a flawed map designed to conceal what they fear most: The responsibility of recognizing their innate genius and potential.
The human being who embarks on the path to their truer self faces their pain centers with great courage and takes on the transformation of self as their primary purpose in life. They realize that their relationship with themselves contributes to the emotional subtext of every human interaction. They have the wisdom to resign with good grace from all that they are not.